funny "flutter and swoop" of Wheatstraw's fading solo, Invisible man is stunned to hear it take on the acoustic equivalent of a train whistling "lonely across the lonely night." An intense passion flashes over him, prompting the exclamation, "God damn . . . they're a hell of a people!" He does not know whether this flash filled him with “pride or disgust” (177). It was likely a cautionary combination of both. At that point in his journey however, the narrator is just beginning to learn to tune into the confounding nature of the invisible connection between his personal reality and the historical manifestations of his cultural heritage being carried to him across time and space on waves of sound.
"The Negro has been a man without a history because
he has been considered a man without a worthy culture."
-- Arthur Schomburg, The Negro Digs Up His Past
At the point in history when Invisible Man hunkers down in his cave to compose his thoughts, Duke Ellington's dictum, "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got that Swing," had met with global agreement. Invisible Man's personal encounters with the popular Jazz music of his generation, as described in the prologue, play a vital role in his final move toward self-actualization and action. The elusive structure and opaque style of Invisible Man might be an appropriately incoherent example of French existentialist theories regarding the meaninglessness of existence. However, it may well be that Ellison's hero begins writing his prologue with a determination to tell his story in the Jazz vernacular discovered through his musical heritage. Perhaps, like Duke Ellington, Invisible Man is riffing on the idea that "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got that Swing." That is to say -- a book detailing the significant aspects of Invisible Man's unique, African-American experience requires a syncopated, improvisational, Jazz fusion of the traditional European novel with art forms rooted in the conflicted visions, resilient gestures and joyful noises of his own history. Ellison's non-conformist, non-linear style is necessary then, because it aptly conveys the protagonist's experience.
In an effort to "illuminate the blackness" of his invisibility and feel his "vital aliveness," Ellison's narrator describes how he meditates in the waves from "exactly 1,369 lights" and the vibrations of Louis Armstrong's Jazz being blasted from a radio-phonograph (7). Jazz acts as an acoustic mirror. Jazz reflects and amplifies Invisible Man's disjointed sense of spatial awareness and ragged timing -- a timing that is never "quite on the beat." He mentions his consciousness of "those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead," and advises, "That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music" (8). Invisible Man describes one particular moment of Jazz time-travel. Inspired only by the swing stylings in Armstrong's recording of What Did I Do to BeSo Black and Blue? -- and a time-bending toke of Satchmo's infamously revered "reefer" -- he dropped into a place even deeper, brighter, more familiar and more forgotten than his secret basement cave; he went inside the music itself. "I not only entered the music but descended," he says, "like Dante, into its depths" (9).
Thematically, Armstrong's Black and Blue deals directly with Invisible Man's dilemma of having a visual impairment due to the cultural blindness of others. The comic show tune was originally composed and conceived as a burlesque, written in the harsh mold of the unfortunately named, "coon song." However, the repeated refrain of the title's pathetic, self-pitying pun switches position in Armstrong's gently swinging arrangement. His version implies a ready acknowledgment of the bruising conditions suffered by people of color throughout the ages. Armstrong's high-pitched horn and low, husky baritone perfectly embody the irony of the song as he negotiates the tune's meandering melody and meaning. He has recorded his story without shame or fear, transposing the harsh hopelessness of historical discord into rich, new harmonies. He has "made poetry out of being invisible" (8).
The narrator's descent into the abstraction of Armstrong's Black and Blue serves to encapsulate and explain his entire journey. Listening between the melody lines, he perceives living visions in the music that are "seldom seen, except by musicians" (13). Transfixed by the composition, he finds, among other things, an "old woman singing a Spiritual," a Southern preacher riffing on the "BlacknessofBlackness" and a young girl pleading "before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body" (9). Swirling inside the syncopated mayhem, there are the compromised sighs of a sister and the joyous cries of a mother that will eventually be recognized as the heart-stirring affirmation in the sound of an "untroubled voice" singing the troubled song of a slave; there is the threatening laughter from brothers, and the loud, lewd nonsense that will later be understood as a secret code in the sophisticated scat singing of a weary Blues. Inside Satchmo's solo, the narrator hears the history of all invisible mankind. Ellison's narrator escapes from the "underworld of sound" as the phono-recording nears its end. He surfaces just in time to see the wonderment in the notes of Satchmo's final phrase. Louis Armstrong -- the 'King of Swing' and global ambassador of America's first true musical art form -- marvels at his own innate grace, natural gifts and good fortune, singing, "What did I do . . . to be so Black and blue?" (12) Through this Jazz excursion, and no doubt, many similar encounters with swing music, the narrator is empowered by his past. He comes to understand that he can contribute something of value to the future by writing his story. Guided by Jazz to the act of putting his "invisibility down in black and white," (14) the narrator is ready to emerge from hibernation and offer up the experiences of his life in a framework which honors and promotes his cultural legacy.
"So why do I write” Ellison’s hero asks, “torturing myself to put it down? " Preparing to rejoin the human race, he proposes: “Because in spite of myself I've learned some things" (579). What he has learned has been unearthed through immersion with the Spirituals, Blues and Jazz of African-American music history. These solo and communal expressions can be viewed as a key to the narrator's cryptic trip from boyhood, blindness and confusion to manhood, autonomy and acceptance. Having identified his unique voice through the music of his ancestors and summoned the will to project it to the world, Invisible Man is struck by the thought that, at least on some level, he speaks for us all. While basic, this thesis may shed light on Ellison's novel, or at least give the confused, casual reader a point of reference that provides a sense of conformity. Ultimately however, the beauty of Ralph Ellison's African-American odyssey is in its passion to record a Jazz life in all its strangeness, forever illuminating the ambiguous existence of a race of people not historically acknowledged, appreciated, seen or heard.
Armstrong, Louis. What Did I Do to Be SoBlack and Blue? Okeh Records, 1929. Audio Recording.
Ellington, Duke. It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got that Swing. Brunswick Records, 1932. Audio Recording.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 2nd International ed. United States: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.
Schomburg, Arthur. "The Negro Digs Up His Past." The Survey Graphic the March 1925 Number Harlem Mecca of the New Negro. Locke, Alain. United States: Black Classic Press, 1980. Print.